Cast: Gregg Turkington, John C. Reilly, Tye Sheridan, Michael Cera, Tim Heidecker
Director: Rick Alverson
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Rick Alverson doesn't make films for the audience. Or more precisely, he doesn't make films that coddle the audience into feeling good about themselves. If 2012's The Comedy, starring Tim Heidecker as an aging hipster prone to agonizing narcissism rubbed people the wrong way, then his followup Entertainment makes even less concessions to traditional audience empathy. But Alverson, who developed this project closely with co-writer and star Gregg Turkington, isn't out for cheap provocation. This isn't a film being difficult for the sake of being difficult; but rather, a bold and oftentimes darkly hilarious examination of an artist's unyielding self-hatred. It's also, incidentally, commenting on the ways in which comedians have tried to express themselves throughout the decades, pushing back against a sea of homogeny and flat punchlines. A strange ramble into the black heartland of empty deserts, dingy bars, and cheap motels, Entertainment exists as a bold corrective to the notion that movies, especially in 2015, need to be cuddly endeavors with sympathetic protagonists and likable narrative arcs.
The film follows the unnamed comedian (Turkington) as he moves through the American wasteland, pausing his journey periodically to partake in small group-tours. This latter bit is envisioned by Alverson as a seemingly curious sidebar--with the comedian walking slowly through a bombed out airplane and zoning out to the sight of large-scale oil pumps. While these vignettes may appear random or unnecessary, they are crucial in capturing the sight of a man caught inside a near mental breakdown. Turkington, who is essentially playing an extension of his standup alter-ego Neil Hamburger, gives a towering, unglamorous central performance. His character is both extreme and withdrawn, hostile and unbelievably sad, prone to provoking a reaction onstage and then withdrawing into himself while not performing. With his greasy comb-over, cheap tuxedo, and penchant for holding multiple drinks, Turkington's Andy Kauffman by-way-of Tony Clifton performance stunt is the epitome of bad taste. And yet, his high-pitched voice gurgling phlegm while uttering bad jokes about rape and Carrot Top, is consistently funny in the way that anti-comedy should be. During the scenes where he's not onstage, Turkington buries himself into the role of an individual who exists as a kind of self-hating ghost, rarely initiating conversation or even pretending to placate others socially. Sitting inside his motel room watching some bizarre Mexican soap opera while cradling a beer, it's clear that this is a man for whom "reality" is itself a cosmic joke.
Entertainment often plays like a cross between Martin Scorsese's seminal show-biz satire The King of Comedy and Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas; in that it's a road movie in which the central protagonist is literally and metaphorically going nowhere while at the same time envisioning the very act of "entertainment" as something illusionary. There's also a little David Lynch-style weirdness thrown in; from the sight of the comedian wearing a white suit inside a jail cell and a nightmarish stillborn baby delivery sequence that feels like a nod to Eraserhead. Alverson, though, doesn't bank on hallucinatory strangeness as a crutch, as the vast majority of the film makes sense as a kind of microcosm of life on the road, punctuated by long moments of erie stillness. What's most fascinating is that even though there's plenty of off-putting macabre humor, the film is much more downbeat, slow, and poignantly sad than expected. There's an accompanying clown performer (a game Tye Sheridan), a dim-witted but well-meaning cousin (John C. Reily), a menacing drifter (Michael Cera), and even blink-or-you'll-miss them cameos from Dean Stockwell (another Paris, Texas wink) and Amy Seimetz as a drunken audience member who retaliates against the comedian's deplorable act. But through it all, one gets the sense that the comedian's emptiness somehow stems from his estranged relationship with his daughter; a touch by Alverson, Turkington, and fellow screenwriter Tim Heidecker that pushes the film into far more interesting territory.
Of course, Entertainment doesn't turn into one man's journey towards reuniting with his daughter and therefore, redemption. Instead, this recurring motif only hints at the comedian's deteriorating mental state. The fact that he wants to both piss off the audience as well as gain some form of acceptance (he often complains about the crowd's lack of enthusiasm for his material) is a dichotomy that Alverson wishes to spring on us, the watchers of his film. As art, movies should challenge, provoke, and upset the status quo. They should be willing to shed the need for sympathetic protagonists and agreeable plot points that audience members find "relatable". Art is not always about relatability or even likeability, but is instead a window into which our more base and unsympathetic urges can be laid bare. When the comedian arrives at a party for one his Hollywood elite friends (Heidecker, in another coy joke) during the third act and unravels in spectacular fashion, the sense of both horrifying sadness and uncomfortable humor at being a spectator to such a thing is instructive to understanding the brilliance of Alverson's accomplishment. Anti-comedy? Provocative stunt? Sure, but also thrilling in resisting the trap so many so-called comedies have fallen into in terms of appealing to the "four-quadrant" mentality. Legitimate art isn't and shouldn't be for everyone, and Entertainment stands as a high example for that cause.
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